Despite being ranked as the deadliest country in the world for environmental activism, Martín Fernández Guzman, 42, puts his life at risk every day to fight against corruption in Honduras.
For many years, big businesses with links to the government and the military, have stolen land from indigenous communities and exploited their resources to develop mining, logging and hydroelectric projects for commercial gain. To anyone who stands in their way, they face arrest, attacks and even murder.
To oppose and expose this exploitation and injustice, in 2009, Martín, a lawyer by profession, co-founded a social movement, Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia (MADJ), to defend human rights, the indigenous people and the country’s natural assets.
But at a serious risk. More than 120 activists have been killed since 2010 for this reason alone, according to Global Witness.
“We live in constant fear of attack. I, and many colleagues, have had to live in exile,” he said.
In 2012 he was forced to flee for safety to Brazil for three months after he received telephone death threats and was followed by cars with black tinted windows near his work and home.
Since MADJ founded a radio station in 2014, he has also received several calls while on air, threatening to blow up the radio booth. “And in 2017, I was attacked by a group of workers from a company in the Honduran Caribbean who broke my nose. Still 9 months later, nobody has been brought to justice for that attack.”
He worries about his family and personal security, and after further attacks and intimidation, he was forced to flee again in January 2018.
Martín agrees that the attacks on human rights defenders could be a sign of their work’s success. “It is definitely possible. But it’s important to point out the failure of the government to really punish those who break the law because the deaths of many defenders could be avoided if they did so.
“In most cases, it involves companies that have a very high economic interest in the country and have links with politicians. They want to monopolize the country's assets and this places each of the defenders in a highly vulnerable situation.”
But Martín will not be deterred. “It is our role to make a new future for Honduras,” he said.
Over the last nine years, MADJ with support from Trócaire has been working with the Tolupan community to help them understand their rights and stop the exploitation of their land and natural resources by businesses.
The Tolupánes community has been torn apart by killings with more than 100 leaders murdered in the last 20 years. “These people were defending a territory, committed to doing their best for the people of their community. And they were killed for doing so. The loss of human life just because of a business interest is incomprehensible,” said Martín.
“This motivates you to seek justice, despite the great risk involved, because their communities have been neglected, and these remarkable, brave people have died to defend their land and their rights,” he said.
With the support of MaDJ, they are working to rebuild their community and are taking legal cases to claim their land back. They are standing up to companies that try to exploit their natural resources and have successfully been able to stop the development of a commercial hydroelectric plant and the further loss of their forests for logging and mining.
“In the past, companies had been granted illegal licences to exploit the wood of the Tolupan people. But with our support, the population has been able to resist the exploitation and take back control of their territory which is a very important achievement.”
Honduras may still have a long way to go to overcome the problems of resource exploitation and corruption but with people like Martín at the helm, they will continue to stand up for what is right.
“We are going through difficult times but the population mobilised and ready to stand up to oppression. So while there have been sad times and difficult situations, we are living during an era of great importance.”
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